An Iraqi Christmas

My wife and I are going through near-empty-nest syndrome: one daughter in college in Iowa, one son more or less on his own and one daughter living at home while taking courses at New Hampshire Technical Institute. But suddenly, back in October, our whole nest changed in a most exotic way.My daughter, an art student, was walking home from NHTI when a boy, apparently of Middle Eastern descent, asked her about the portfolio she carried. He explained in broken English that his friend was an artist and needed to know where to get paints and watercolor paper. Now this daughter of mine is not particularly outgoing so it was a surprise when she came home and told us what happened next.

She not only met the young artist, but had been introduced to his entire family, refugees from Iraq, and had seen the paintings created by the boy, Hassan, and his father, Saad: colorful, sometimes surreal images of old Babylon mixed with scenes of their new home in New Hampshire. She said the art was amazing, and she’s quite an artist herself, so this was no small compliment.

My wife dropped by for a visit, then I did. Soon we found ourselves there talking into the night, drinking tea and sharing meals with them with translation supplied mostly by Hassan’s older brother, Hussein. We learned that Saad was an artist of great reputation before the Gulf Wars, and he was a highly paid interior designer in Baghdad. Much of the family fortune was spent paying a ransom when Hussein was kidnapped by insurgents. That was the final straw and they fled to America. Saad now must find a job — probably a menial one — to be allowed to stay here. They want to sell their art and they need all the connections to the community they can find, so we’re serving as an honorary extended family for a while.

We’ve done our best to answer some questions they have about New Hampshire. Due to the season, they were particularly curious about Halloween. Seeing it through their eyes, I realized what a strange holiday it is. Even without the language barrier, it would have been a challenge to explain all the snarling pumpkins, cackling witches and morbid decorations. Next challenge: Christmas.

The family is Muslim, but they share some religious figures with Christianity. The Virgin Mary, for instance, called Maryam in Islam, is revered as is Jesus, though the Bible and Koran diverge broadly on specifics. For Saad and his family, Maryam gave birth to Jesus under a barren date palm tree and was miraculously fed by its fruit.

Not sure what they will make of the Christmas holidays in America, but they need no lessons in the giving of gifts. We seldom leave their home without some new present or painting they have made for us. We may struggle to understand one another’s words, but some messages are too big for words anyway. Thanks to them, I know that the immigrant and refugee communities not only require our help, they have much to offer. Thanks to them, the world for us is now a richer and larger place, and we know that a nest is only as empty as you make it.

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